Art and Science
Portraiture pushes against the constraints of ethnographic traditions and practices in its explicit effort to combine empirical and aesthetic description, in its focus on the convergence of narrative and analysis, and in its goal of speaking to broader audiences beyond the academy, thus linking inquiry to public discourse and social transformation. In its standard of authenticity rather than the traditional standards of reliability and validity, and in its explicit recognition of the uses of the self as the primary research instrument for documenting and interpreting the perspectives and experiences of the people and the cultures being studied, portraiture remains an innovative method of social science inquiry. Five key elements or concepts can describe the method of portraiture: context, voice, relationship, emergent themes, and the aesthetic whole.
The narrative is always embedded in a particular context, including physical settings, cultural rituals, norms, and values, and historical periods. The context is rich in cues about how the actors or subjects negotiate and understand their experience. But the portraitist is interested in not only producing complex, subtle description in context but also in searching for the central story, developing a convincing and authentic narrative. This requires careful, systematic, and detailed description developed through watching, listening to, and interacting with the actors over a sustained period of time, the tracing and interpretation of emergent themes, and the piecing together of these themes into an aesthetic whole. In creating the text, the portraitist is alert to the aesthetic principles of composition and form, rhythm, sequence, and metaphor.